W. B. Yeats: “Easter, 1916” (1921)

Easter, 1916 was written by Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) and published in 1921. Yeats was born in Dublin, the son of prominent artist John Butler Yeats. The family moved to England when Yeats was an infant but returned to Dublin in 1880. Despite his Protestant background Yeats became a Nationalist, taking up membership of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. From 1922 he held a seat in the Seanad Éireann, the upper house of the Irish Free State parliament. Yeats was a political moderate who despised violence. He opposed the 1916 Easter Rising but was appalled by the swift and brutal executions of its perpetrators. Easter, 1916 was written weeks after the Easter Rising, though Yeats refused to publish it for five years. The poem is about the 1916 rebels, Yeats’ relationship with them and (in the last stanza) the wastefulness of their death. Yeats’ phrase “All changed, changed utterly: a terrible beauty is born” is often interpreted as an ominous warning of the troubles to come in Ireland:

“I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our winged horse.
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vain-glorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter, seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute change.
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim;
And a horse plashes within it
Where long-legged moorhens dive
And hens to moorcocks call.
Minute by minute they live:
The stone’s in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death.
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream enough
To know they dreamed and are dead.
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse:
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be
Wherever green is worn
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.”